Casey Curran and the God of the Gaps

Posted on February 27, 2013, 9:00 am
34 mins

Photography by Anna Skibska

Art may be a major component of our culture, but the relationship between art and the general populace has been strained. One must keep a safe distance, we are told. Art is moody, suspicious. It doesn’t like being touched. Maybe it thinks it’s too good for us. The hauteur of some in the art world sadly reinforces that estrangement, and resentment and anxiety may follow. A popular lack of literacy makes older works obscure, and for a generation raised with abstract expressionism on every wall—which functions through unintelligibility, replacing symbols and representation with unarticulated feelings—art may also seem “emotionally unavailable.” The worst art is cynical, sneers at the audience, and when this sort of work is elevated (and it has been) those who are not already invested in the art world may see more clearly that the emperor has no clothes. It is no wonder that many ask why they should avail themselves to art at all. Their relationship with art is lopsided, distant, without real interaction.

This by no means lays blame upon abstract impressionists or any other school whose work is considered inaccessible by the uninitiated. Artists should feel free to express themselves in whatever way is most authentic to them, but we need more than ever for some artists to close the gap and make people feel engaged once again on a fundamental level. Casey Curran is one such artist, though his humility and workmanlike attitude make him reluctant to admit it. He doesn’t need to explain himself or his work. (It’s generally best that artists avoid doing so, I find.) His kinetic sculptures are a complex interaction of disparate parts, but among the things that matter most is the interaction between viewer and artwork in its simplicity.

“I think it is less a concept and more a direct physical action the viewer has with each one of my pieces,” he explains. “There is really nothing more satisfying—other than breaking things—than seeing the smile on a person’s face when they first realize they can interact with the work. And it doesn’t always happen from verbal prompting. During openings I’ll watch one person animate a piece and—monkey see, monkey do—soon everyone is interacting with the work.”

Let there be movement! Turning a piece’s hand-crank brings to life creatures rendered in wire, like three-dimensional line-drawings: a flying beetle, a mysterious seascape. His vocabulary of movement has developed over time, but even his early works show enormous technical prowess. Though the sound is a secondary experience, the creaking, clinking, scratching of Curran’s mechanisms is satisfying, too: the peculiar sound of a fan folding and unfolding, forming the wings of a crane; tinsel passing through a mesh tube; wheels turning on a tiny axle. For some viewers, the simple act will bring to life not only these complex tableaux but an interior universe of which they may have been unaware, the core of the artistic experience. Curran himself has been surprised by the profundity of some viewers’ experiences.

“I’ve always been fascinated with art and the transference of ideas into objects, but the true significance didn’t hit me until senior year of college. During my thesis show, a woman came up to me with tears in her eyes, exclaiming how moving one of my pieces was. She was literally crying in front of me. I was so in awe that the only response I could muster was a limp ‘Thank you.’ Honestly, until that point I didn’t know art—save for those pieces steeped in religious experience—could affect someone like that. I was struck dumb.”

Curran may have been surprised at the time, but he should know to expect it by now. In kinetic sculpture or any work whose medium involves stillness and movement, an address of life and death and the uncanny separation between the two will inevitably occur. Curran does not shy away from this, but he is not morbid about it—at least not anymore. He includes taxidermied elements—especially bird wings and pelts—into some of his work and the results are surreal and elegant, only as eerie as they are playful.

“Actually, I did have multiple Dr. Moreau/Frankenweenie moments in my artistic maturation,” he confesses. “Though I might be in denial, I’d like to think my work has grown out of the more grotesque elements of my road kill phase.” That term was coined by his mother. He utters it with a bit of bashfulness and mischief. “Yes, animal material has crept back into the work, but less as an object of itself and more as a symbol or fluid medium. I imagine them embedded with both the specter of life and the more traditional elements of color, space, volume, weight, etc.”

This is a key point, because regardless of the elements Curran is incorporating into the structure, the effect is a sense of renewed wholeness, of cultural and organic detritus receiving a second life. Art is equally celebrated and derided for being without practical purpose, and Curran’s work toys with that issue more than most by “functioning.” However, its function is self-contained, a microcosm of disparate elements united by a primum mobile that the viewer must turn. It is indeed more like a toy than most art that one encounters, but like the best toys it inspires one to learn and imagine, and like the best art it has its effect not in a vacuum but with a sustained reference to the world around us and the worlds within us.

Photography by Anna Skibska

Life in a Tool Box

The seeds of Curran’s work were planted young, among wild animals and a protean household where the underlying structure was exposed, partitions were ad hoc and tools were ubiquitous. To hear him describe it, it sounds like a world of its own, inhabited as it was being forged—and not exactly Edenic.

“My brother kept rattle snakes in the pump-house on my parents property. And at some point he got a caiman alligator that his pixy bob [half bobcat] killed. For me I’ve always channeled the 60-year old cat lady. At one point we were feeding upwards of 15 cats.”

“My childhood was rife with mechanical gadgets, exposed timber and loosely covered electrical boxes. The old saying of ‘a carpenter’s house is never finished’ rings true to my earliest experiences. I grew up around constant remodeling and was deeply acquainted with the inner workings of my home. One month, my room would be a bed stacked behind a pile of boxes. The next, [it would be] a cot where the kitchen used to be. I think that a shifting home life—changing and exposed but stable—has probably played into my earliest fascinations with structure, order and motion. As a more concrete example, I remember finding a screwdriver and sneaking my brother’s toys into my room. I always had the intention of putting the pieces back together but I could never quite figure out how to do it.”

Curran developed his artistry throughout his adolescence. Despite precocious forays into mechanics, he didn’t begin incorporating kinetics into his artwork until his mid-teens when he was inspired by a piece by Alexander Calder.

“My teacher in high school was showing a documentary on Calder and there was a specific piece, ‘Fish Bowl with Crank,’ that blew my mind. I had been playing around with wire for years before that, but as soon as I saw this simple wire mechanism my mind exploded with possibilities.”

When asked what he considers his first mature piece of work, he places the date later than one might expect.

“I think my first truly mature piece of work was ‘The Walking Man,’ completed in 2006. It’s a life-size fully articulated skeleton made from wire. To give you an idea, it’s housed in a large wooden frame box and propelled by a motor which causes it walk and turn the crank of second wooden frame box with a smaller skeleton in the box. This second skeleton is made to walk by the first skeleton but in addition to this the second skeleton also has a wooden frame box in its hand and turns the crank of a third very small skeleton causing it to walk. It’s a piece that’s better seen than explained. I consider it a “mature” piece of art because its final form exceeded the original intent of its creation. It had both depth and breadth with multiple points of entry and contemplation.”

It is always a pleasure to hear a good artist talk about his or her work with frankness, identifying strengths with conviction while remaining humble. Curran can seem particularly self-effacing, but one gets the sense that this is another manifestation of his workmanlike demeanor, a meticulous care about what he says as much as he does. His is a sophisticated mind well-acquainted with form and function. It is thus not terribly surprising when he admits that he has trouble with spelling, wanting to write everything phonetically. Spelling in English is certainly not a case of form following function.

Moving from one series of work to the next, Curran uses different media and develops new construction methods. This has allowed him to expand his oeuvre without worrying too much about technical gaffes.

“I’ve got a system. When I’m experimenting with a new material there’s a learning curve, but that’s [a sort of] experimentation where failure doesn’t really exist. When something new comes to me I’m trying to figure out what that substance can do. What’s special about its form? How can I incorporate its motion or history into such-and-such framework?”

Curran learned the hard way in his early years to identify issues early in the process, preventing a problematic project from becoming a colossal waste of time and material. In his years as an art student at Cornish, he had a few major projects that didn’t pan out, spending fourteen weeks on one sculpture that he “should have known” wouldn’t work by week three. In another case, seven weeks were spent on a project whose futility could have been understood through a simple test. He accepts these experiences as important learning experiences.

“Now my work is either meticulously planned or has been planned in such a way as to allow freedom in its construction without planning. Think of it as structured spontaneity.”

“After I feel confident with whatever new thing I’m attempting, I give myself a week to mull it over with mockups and sketches. If there’s even a chance of it not functioning the way I want, I put it down and let it fix itself with time or collect dust forever. Of course, I won’t know if it sits there forever until forever happens, but more often than not a new idea comes to me and I’m able to use it.”

“And mind you, with all this said, I’m only really talking about the kinetic aspect of the work. Failures in concept or aesthetic happen to me all the time, but the standard I judge myself probably differs so wildly from the one you or the next person would hold me to, so I tend to focus on the empirical qualities of pass/fail.”

Analyze to Synthesize

The empirical aspect of Curran’s work is worth more than a passing mention. The interactive aspects may help bridge the gap between art and viewer, but the bridge within the work between art and science is particularly important to modern audiences. When one thinks of the word “modern,” images of sleek machinery and unadorned architecture following the dictum “Form follows function” may spring to mind. Indeed, these are Modernist aesthetics, but modernity as an historical development extends before the Age of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment brought a necessary challenge to theocratic dogma with a reasoned, scientific approach to the world and its phenomena. The arts and sciences were still strongly bound, as they represented respectively synthetic and analytic approaches to phenomena. One needed to to tease apart complex things, but it was equally important to put things together.

Photography by Anna Skibska

Photography by Anna Skibska

An emphasis on analytical disciplines has made much of modern culture like Curran was as a child—capable of pulling ideas apart but largely incapable of assembling them cogently. This assumes that culture is as well-intentioned as Curran—as he really did want to put things back together—and this may not be the case. The ethos of the Industrial Revolution and beyond was a search for happiness and security in a compartmental existence, with one piece of the line of production, one sequestered dwelling with a place for everything and everything in its place. Marxist and Capitalist theories have turned this idea of people as discrete objects or part of cooperative organizations into an ideological battleground—often with more than a little self-contradiction on both sides—as everyone grapples with new ethics required by new technology and the changes in societal structure that it brings. We really haven’t come much closer to figuring it out in the last century.

Artists have occasionally become embroiled in these conflicts and they have certainly had their leanings one way or the other, but their work exists independently. It may use new technology or traditional media, representation or abstraction, reality or dream states, but the most effective work approaches its age on an intuitive level, not providing a direct commentary even when it is being critical. Much art in the 20th century was a direct challenge to the analytical, in praise of intuition, spontaneity and pure creation—an extension of l’art pour l’art.

However, for a litany of reasons art seemed to become less accessible to a great many people, even as it began to proliferate in the public sphere. Blame it on market forces, on kitsch, on too much propaganda, on cynical tricksterism—wherever the blame may be pointlessly lain, the problem at present is a need to reconcile people with art, and—perhaps as the more crucial first step—popular perceptions of the arts and sciences.

Hence, the potential of Curran’s work to patch both relationships is quite spectacular. His is not the only idiom capable of it and there are other artists whose work accomplishes it masterfully. More famously and on a larger scale of installation, there are the works of Mark Dion and James Turrell. These artists create works that fill a space and may foster an important sense of shared experience among viewers, but the intricate and physical intimacy of Curran’s works charges the interior world with a peculiar curiosity and sense of discovery—one that may be markedly different for every person who interacts with the work.

Omnia mutantur, nihil interit

Curran stands in awe of the robotics being developed by engineering schools internationally and seems to consider himself little more than a tinkerer compared to them as we talk. Even artists fall prey to the overwhelming sense that creative works that elicit emotional and psychological effects are somehow inferior to the trappings of creature comfort offered by “practical” applications of technology. No one is immune, and the effects can be disheartening, but Curran’s humility and satisfaction with the work keeps him going. That isn’t to say that he loves everything about it…

“I am happiest when planning a new project and seeing it complete, but all the stuff that happens in the middle with the making, and the cutting, and the blood, I wouldn’t mind off-shoring the job. I think I have a fair amount of confidence, but I do get a sense that I’m always on the precipice of failure. You run faster when dogs are chasing you.”

Perhaps this is also why he does not enjoy retreading old material too much and prefers to keep innovating. It has taken time, but he says that he has become more receptive to requests for works commissioned based on previous series.

“I used to have a problem with revisiting old series. Whenever I’d get a commission or request for work in a particular style I’d walk into it with so much reservation. I can only say it’s like being in the middle of a really great song or eating this amazing food and suddenly work calls and you’ve got to drop everything and listen to this other song and eat this other food that maybe you’re kind of tired of. Enough time has elapsed between the work I was doing four or five years ago and the work I’m doing today that there’s more a sense of nostalgia than duty. I think there is a type of aesthetic and conceptual through line that runs between each series, separate from the pure kinetic elements of everything.”

Indeed, the aforementioned reintegration of obsolete cultural detritus into a new and functional whole is one such thread. To create the foundation for the sculptures in his 2007 series Structuralism, Curran used old books, including dated texts on anatomy and mechanics. The Biosphere series was inspired by giant islands of plastic refuse afloat in oceanic gyres. In the floating ecologies he created (including motorized pieces suspended from the ceiling), one finds coral and crinoids of wire and tinsel, cranes with wings made of folding fans, and faceless imps copulating and consuming. Like his more uncanny works incorporating bird wings and bones, there is a playfulness that leans sinister. Tinsel declaring “Happy Birthday” flutters in and out of phallic, spongiform tubes. One might ask, “Whose birth?” The creatures spawned among ecological havoc? The future generations left to clean up this mess or perish by it? Or is that over-thinking in it, and are we meant to celebrate the “life” given to the object by the turn of the crank? Is even that over-thinking it? These sorts of questions are the germ of discovery, and they remain ambiguous and open while still providing a framework for constructive contemplation.

Between Structuralism and Biosphere Curran created his Oceania series, which mixed representations of life from marine and terrestrial gardens. Dragonflies and bees hover over clusters of coral on panels with a warm decoupage of sheet music. I am personally leery of this technique, which in less capable hands can become kitsch or poster art, but here the linear, speckled texture of the music seems to complement the fusion of sea, earth and sky in the affixed sculptures.

This reconciliation of the elements was extended into the abstract in his later series, Sacred and Profane. Silk flowers, bird wings and geometric figures form explosions of organic and inorganic matter mingling in one pulsing mesh. Here is a unity wherein feelings and ideas of obsolescence and isolation are recognized as a symptom of thought and value structures, not true of the encompassing reality. Even our “sacred” systems of logic and mathematics are synthetic structures with their own unsolvable problems. The presence of regular geometric forms thus need not serve as a mere foil to the irregular organic forms, but a reminder that even the platonic solids are brimming with irrational numbers, that the foundation of all things is inexplicable, uncanny, as wondrous as it is dangerous. As Curran says:

“Science from any historic age is amazing. I’m captivated by the obsession and creative vision, the drive that compels a person to question our most sacred assumptions about the world. [Some have said that] I have a chaotic energy and I can only agree. I don’t think there is anything more satisfying or cathartic than destroying something to make another thing. It’s the dance of Shiva over and over again. And this perpetual collapse and emergence isn’t just limited to objects. They are ideas and nations, religions and gods, truths and lies. I find a personal stability in science and the ways it questions and tries to define the world. But I do believe there will always be more to know and understand, places science can’t probe, and this is where the god of the gaps will reign supreme. I believe there will always be a need for humanity to find sacred space in objects and action. My most recent work has been skirting these ideas.”

There is a distinction to be made here between art that perceives chaos in nature and seeks an underlying pattern and art that perceives chaos in our milieu and cynically reflects or regurgitates it. Curran falls squarely in the former category, but he doesn’t make the mistake that some do by resorting to dogma and rigid structures as a way of shoring up one’s political and existential defenses. Curran’s work maintains a fluidity that merely respects chaos in nature, neither rejects nor embraces it, thus embracing it as one component of existence—a most necessary component.

Chaotic or not, Curran has a deep capacity for pathos and tenderness that bespeaks his sincerity in the search for whatever central aspect of life we can call sacred, to make it a shared experience and to create a sanctuary for it. This is evident even in how he handles the pelts of a chicken and a pheasant in his workspace as we talk—with a melancholy reverence. (As an aside, he was recently ordered a large order of pelts and was horrified to find the heads were still attached. “I screamed when I opened the box,” he confesses.)


Collaboration and Reconciliation

This combination of sincerity, intuition and technical prowess has inspired performance groups to enlist Curran in designing sets and props. Not surprisingly, this bridge between visual and performing artists has occurred especially with groups whose own aesthetics and techniques combine multiple, sometimes contradictory elements. Dance troupe Whim W’him is one. Founded by Olivier Wevers, the Seattle-based group combines contemporary dance with classical ballet. Implied Violence and Saint Genet are another group with whom Curran has collaborated frequently. He is at present creating works for their upcoming show as he continues creating his own work. This collaborative approach has its own challenges and rewards.

“Sometimes the show needs a really specific item, but most of the time I’m brainstorming ideas with the director. How best to convey such and such experience or emotion. There’s only been one occasion where I’ve said, ‘I’m going to make this thing and you need to figure out how to work it into the show.’ It was great—a big gold skeleton riding on a horse made of tar.”

But… “I’m always on the edge of my seat fearing the sets will come crashing down, maiming some actor or dancer for life.”

As Curran progresses, there is no telling how his work will look in the future. His aesthetics may have a consistent thread, but the possibilities, the gaps to explore and bridge through his work remain without end. To be truly successful as an artist or scientist, one must maintain a sense of humility and curiosity while also being rigorous and disciplined in one’s practice. Curran seems made for the task, plucking and weaving his wires as he speaks with admiration for the work of others and demurs when asked how he thinks his work might be viewed by future generations as a document of our time.

“Detached, objective, and realistic. I have little imagination that after my death the work will last to future generations. We’re so obsessed with the new. I sometimes feel so antiquated with my little machines. I recently watched this short doc. on MIT and was blown away by the things those students and researchers do.”

Feeling that weight, that constant flux of creation and destruction, the dance of Shiva, the lemming-like push of moderns toward the brink of their own obsolescence—this is evident in all of Curran’s work, but above all there is that playful tenderness. One can view Shiva’s dance as one of life or of death, but ideally one will see both in it, inextricably bound. The inter-connectivity of all disparate parts, of individual wires forming a mesh, a plant, a walking man, of self and Other is joyous, for only by being separate can they know the joy of reunion—when the gap between viewer and art is closed by an outstretched hand, bringing a miniature world to life, when the arts and sciences are reintegrated into their double helix of synthesis and analysis, when new connections are made within ourselves and we know that the god of the gaps reigns supreme.

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.

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